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Meta Kills a Crucial Transparency Tool At the Worst Possible Time

Earlier this month, Meta announced that it would be shutting down CrowdTangle, the social media monitoring and transparency tool that has allowed journalists and researchers to track the spread of mis- and disinformation. It will cease to function on August 14, 2024—just months before the US presidential election.

Meta’s move is just the latest example of a tech company rolling back transparency and security measures as the world enters the biggest global election year in history. The company says it is replacing CrowdTangle with a new Content Library API, which will require researchers and nonprofits to apply for access to the company’s data. But the Mozilla Foundation and 70 other civil society organizations protested last week that the new offering lacks much of CrowdTangle’s functionality, asking the company to keep the original tool operating until January 2025.

Meta spokesperson Andy Stone countered in posts on X that the groups’ claims “are just wrong,” saying the new Content Library will contain “more comprehensive data than CrowdTangle” and be made available to nonprofits, academics, and election integrity experts. But Meta did not respond to questions about why commercial newsrooms, like WIRED, are to be excluded.

Brandon Silverman, cofounder and former CEO of CrowdTangle, who continued to work on the tool after Facebook acquired it in 2016, says it’s time to force platforms to open up their data to outsiders. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vittoria Elliott: CrowdTangle has been incredibly important for journalists and researchers trying to hold tech companies accountable for the spread of mis- and disinformation. But it belongs to Meta. Could you talk a little bit about that tension?

Brandon Silverman: I think there’s a bit too much of a public narrative that frustration with [New York Times columnist] Kevin Roose’ tweets is why they turned their back on CrowdTangle. I think the truth is that Facebook is moving out of news entirely.

When CrowdTangle joined Facebook, they were all in on news and bought us to help the news industry. Fast forward three years later, they are like, “We’re done with that project.” There is a lot of responsibility that comes with hosting news on a platform, especially if you exist in essentially every community on Earth. I think that they made a calculus at some point that it just wasn’t worth what it would cost to do responsibly.

My takeaway when I left was that if you want to do this work in a way that really serves civil society in the way we need it to, you can’t do it inside the companies—and Meta was doing more than almost anyone else. It’s abundantly clear that we need our regulators and elected officials to decide what we, as a society, want and expect from these platforms and to make those [demands] legally required.

What would that look like?

I think we’re at the very beginning of an entire ecosystem of better tools doing this work. The European Union’s sweeping Digital Services Act has a bunch of transparency requirements around data sharing. One of those they sometimes call the CrowdTangle provision—it requires qualifying platforms to provide real-time access to public data.

Over a dozen platforms now have new programs that allow outside researchers to get access to real-time public content. Alibaba, TikTok, YouTube—which has been a black box forever—are now spinning up these programs. It’s been very quiet, because they don’t necessarily want a ton of people using them. In some cases companies add these programs to their terms of service but don’t make any public announcement.


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